In the early 2010s, a famous white male writer, Colum McCann, cofounded a group calling for “radical empathy” and made a lot of money talking about this group on the speaker circuit. This was around the same time that many news outlets reported on a now-debunked scientific study that claimed literary fiction produces empathy—and the attendant opinion pieces making the case (for white audiences) that empathy was the cure for racism. Literary fiction, claimed Scientific American in 2013, “prompts the reader to imagine the characters’ introspective dialogues… undermining prejudices and stereotypes. They support and teach us values about social behavior, such as the importance of understanding those who are different from ourselves.”
Empathy was a buzzword, and therefore a business strategy. By mid-decade, the “Empathy Economy” was booming, putting a name to what advertisers and Hollywood have been doing for decades: encouraging consumers to see themselves as hired actors or to see actors as themselves. A company called The Empathy Business even created an “Empathy Index,” ranking businesses on various measures. Tellingly, Facebook took first place in 2016, of all years. The Facebook algorithm appeals to consumers by selecting similar perspectives. Similar perspectives mean more ability to empathize.
To meet the demands of the empathy economy, brand strategies, books, even a card game were born. In January of this year, AIGA Eye on Design published a feature on the empathy economy that asks “what happens when our emotional connections to others are designed, packaged, and sold?” The feature included the creator of that card game, Sub Rosa (which sells what it calls “Applied Empathy”) and an interview with an “empathy coach” who is quoted as saying: “What I’m really doing with my clients is helping them to better understand their own feelings and needs. Because when we’re not self-connected, we are much less capable of connecting with others.” (My italics.)
Empathy is a self-centered practice. In perhaps its best-known counterargument, Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion, author Paul Bloom writes that empathy is always selective and encourages people to like whomever they most identify with. Empathy is also individual, a feeling “for the one but not for the hundred.”
At last, the Empathy Era may be coming to an end. As recently as June, Emily Hauser wrote in DAME that we would do a lot better to rely on moral principles than to rely on empathy. In 2019, Namwelli Serpell criticized Karl Ove Knausgaard in the New York Review of Books for his call to empathize with Hitler, and went on to argue for “a broader view of humanity” and what she calls “representative thinking.” That essay reminded me that I had written, for The Literary Hub, a critique of publishing’s narrow representation of people of color and the way it looks for one or two individual voices from entire ethnic communities, one or two voices with which a white audience can empathize.
The results of the 2013 study about literary fiction and empathy have, in fact, proved impossible to replicate, though in 2016, The Atlantic reported that there has been hopeful evidence of a correlation between a lifetime of reading and increased empathy. Even lifetime readers and empathizers, however, do not equate to antiracists.
Around the same time McCann founded his group for radical empathy, the Black Lives Matter movement began, after a string of murders of unarmed Black men, mostly by white police. Black Lives Matter takes a different approach than empathy. It encourages direct structural action, like defunding the police. The inevitable backlash to Black Lives Matter came in the form of “All Lives Matter,” which continues to insist that Black Lives Matter somehow erases the importance of other lives—that is, the life of the white person making the accusation.
“All Lives Matter” is a failure to empathize, but it is also more than that. It starts with a non-Black person’s refusal to recognize Black lives not only as human lives, but also as lives fundamentally impossible for non-Black people to experience. There is no walking in the shoes of a Black person for someone who is not Black. Just as there is no walking in my shoes, as an adoptee and an Asian American, for someone who is not adopted or Asian American.
In fact, empathy may be most dangerous when it teaches people to make themselves empathetic. This is personal to me. Having been taught to empathize with white people and to make themselves empathetic to white people, Asian Americans (and Asian American adoptees) sometimes adopt white supremacy’s values, such as its anti-Blackness. Since at least the 1960s, Asian Americans have been used as a wedge group to argue, essentially, that if Black people can’t be more like white people, they should at least be more like Asian Americans, who are more like white people. The ladder of empathy leads to whiteness. The Asian adoption industry, which brought me to America, relies on the relative acceptability of Asian babies to white parents. To emphasize empathy in a white supremacist nation is to emphasize that otherness be assimilable to whiteness.
What bothers white people, and (by degree) model-minority Asian Americans, about Black Lives Matter is that it isn’t focused on what people have to do to matter to whiteness, but instead on the fact that whiteness means certain people’s lives matter less. Antiracism is far less about empathy, about appealing to similarities, than it is about love, about honoring and protecting differences.
Antiracism is always an act of love. It takes love to believe that something can truly become better, and it takes radical self-love to continue to believe in one’s worth when facing the fact of one’s oppression—otherwise, a person would give up. Love is necessary to create and sustain long-term social activism.
Empathy, however, is clearly far more profitable. The empathy economy is the economy of the self, and there is nothing for which Americans will pay more. Tellingly, empathy doesn’t even require another actual person. Watching a film or reading a novel from your couch, alone, can simulate the experience of empathy, even if it doesn’t increase actual empathy in real life. And if something can be simulated, it can certainly be marketed and sold. Love cannot be simulated on your own. Love for a character in a novel or a film is really a love of “relatability.” People identify with a character, or they recognize an aspect of themselves, or they take pleasure in how closely fiction imitates reality. It is inherently impossible to love someone who does not exist except in the imagination.
This is because of the fundamental difference between empathy and love, though the two are often mistaken as one and the same. Love, writes philosopher Byung-chul Han, feels so agonizing at times precisely because it requires relinquishing the desire to see yourself in the other. The lover must “be able to not be able” to understand the beloved. We must love the other as Other, as a separate person with a separate perspective that we cannot, and should not, inhabit.
Han puts it simply: love requires “the negativity of otherness.” His problem with love and desire as they appear in popular culture—romantic comedies, romance novels, Disney movies, porn—is their emphasis on possession and knowledge of the other. This is not love. It is power.
Empathy too represents a kind of power struggle. It repositions the other as the self or the self as the other. When we “walk in another’s shoes,” we attempt to destroy the otherness between us.
McCann, who has been accused of sexually assaulting a Palestinian American author, recently published a novel from the perspective of a Palestinian character. This may or may not be empathy, but it is not love. Assault is never love; it is the desire to eliminate otherness, to get rid of that “negativity” and thereby have power over it and, seemingly, over oneself.
To love is to give up agency. Our obsession with empathy is really about our obsession with and desire to possess the self.
In fact, one of the complaints about white antiracism, in general, is that it co-opts protests by taking up the time, space, and energy of activists of color who have been doing the work on the ground. Another much studied phenomenon is how white antiracism often ends up using the same tools as racism—as when white authors write characters of color to encourage empathy in white readers, even though the white creation of race is exactly what antiracism wants to take apart (see recently: American Dirt).
The creation of race in the name of empathy has long turned a tidy profit. In 1961, a white author famously darkened his skin to write a bestselling book called Black Like Me, an act then replicated by another white author in 1969 in the bestselling book Soul Sister. Both were written to help white people understand Black people by understanding a white person in blackface. White film audiences empathize more with Asian characters when producers cast Scarlet Johansson to play them. Recently, the colonialist film The Help trended on Twitter because white people were watching it to try to understand protests after the murder of George Floyd.
Empathy is granted to those with the most freedom to imagine themselves as the other, without the consequences of being othered. It often shifts the focus from people in low positions of power to people in high positions of power. Moreover, the door through which empathy passes is similarity to the empathizer, not difference. What sells, then, is the agency to take possession of someone else’s perspective, what Joyce Carol Oates calls “slip[ping] involuntarily, often helplessly, into another’s skin.”
“When otherness is stripped from the Other,” Byung-chul Han writes, “one cannot love—one can only consume.”
In love, as in protest, one gains nothing individually. Love means loving the other’s otherness, not their likeness to the self or the feeling of “doing good.” Protest asks you to put your body on the line—not because you are the same as other people, but because other people putting their bodies on the line is different from you doing it. Empathy is a passive act, if it is an action at all. It isn’t a way to experience other people’s experiences, only a way to test your own limitations. To love is to confess love, to make love, to show love. Love starts with recognizing those limitations, and then goes on, giving power to the other.
Antiracism, that is to say, should not be about getting rid of the differences between us. If our current moment encourages people to join protests and make donations and buy educational books, the result should not be another cash-in for the empathy economy, another way to market an idealized version of the self. “Negativity” may sound like a more difficult sell, but antiracism is not against negativity. It is not against otherness. It is against white people’s desire to destroy the other, not just in people of color, but even in themselves.